Sanctification Is a Lifelong Process
Often our practical view of sanctification, discipleship, and counseling posits a monochromatic answer and takes the short view. If you memorize and call to mind one special Bible verse, will it clean up all the mess? Will the right kind of prayer life drive all the darkness away? Will remembering that you are a child of God and justified by faith shield your heart against every evil? Will developing a new set of habits take away the struggle? Is it enough to sit under good preaching and have daily devotions? Is honest accountability to others the decisive key to walking in purity? Will careful self-discipline and a plan to live constructively eliminate the possibility of failure?
These are all very good things. But none of them guarantees that three weeks from now, or three years, or thirty years, you will not still be learning how to love rather than lust. We must have a vision for a long process (lifelong), with a glorious end (the last day), that is actually going somewhere (today). Put those three together in the right way, and you have a practical theology that’s good to go and good for the going.
Look at church history. Look at denominations. Look at local churches. Look at people groups. Look at families. Look at other people. Look at the people in the Bible. Each has a history and keeps making history because the challenges that sanctification faces do not end. As Martin Luther sang, “In much the best life faileth,” and so all of us must “live alone by mercy.”1 And as John Newton sang:
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come,
grace has brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.2
God’s Grace Doesn’t Follow a Schedule
Look at yourself. In this life, we can never say: “I’ve made it. No more forks in the road. No more places where I might stumble and fall flat. No more hard, daily choices to make. No more need for daily grace.” Life never operates on cruise control. The living God seems content to work in his church and in people groups on a scale of generations and centuries. The living God seems content to work in individuals (you, me, the person you are trying to help) on a scale of years and decades, throughout a whole lifetime. At every step, there’s some crucial watershed issue. What will you choose? Whom will you love and serve? There’s always something that the Vinedresser is pruning, some difficult lesson that the Father is teaching the children he loves (John 15; Hebrews 12). It’s no accident that “God is love” and “love is patient” fit together seamlessly. God takes his time with us.
In your sanctification journey and in your ministry to others, you must operate on a scale that can envision a lifetime, even while communicating the urgency of today’s significant choice. Disciple is the most common New Testament identity describing God’s people. A disciple is simply a lifelong learner of wisdom, living in relationship to a wise master. The second most common identity, son/daughter/child, embodies the same purpose. By living in lifelong relationship to a loving Father, we learn how to trust and love in practical ways day by day.
When you think in terms of the moral absolutes, it’s either oily rag or garden of delights. But when you think in terms of the change process, it’s from oily rag to garden of delights. We are, each and all, on a trajectory from what we are to what we will be. The moral absolutes rightly orient us on the road map. But the process heads out on the actual long, long journey in the right direction. The key to getting a long view of sanctification is to understand direction. What matters most is not the distance you’ve covered. It’s not the speed you’re going. It’s not how long you’ve been a Christian. It’s the direction you’re heading.
Do you remember any high school math? “A man drives the 300 miles from Boston to Philadelphia. He goes 60 mph for 2 hours and 40 mph for 3 hours, then sits in traffic for 1 hour not moving. If traffic lightens up and he can drive the rest of the way at 30 mph, how many hours will the whole trip take?” If you know the formula “distance equals rate times time,” you can figure it out (8 hours!). Is sanctification like that, a calculation of how far and how fast for how long?
Not really. The key question in sanctification is whether you’re even heading in the direction of Philadelphia. If you’re heading west toward Seattle, you can drive 75 mph for as long as you want, but you’ll never, ever get to Philadelphia. And if you’re simply sitting outside Boston and have no idea which direction you’re supposed to go, you’ll never get anywhere. But if you’re heading in the right direction, you can go 10 mph or 60 mph. You can get stuck in traffic and sit awhile. You can get out and walk. You can crawl on your hands and knees. You can even get temporarily turned around and head the wrong way for a while. But you get straightened out again. At some point you’ll get where you need to go.
It’s Your Direction that Matters
The rate of sanctification is completely variable. We cannot predict how it will go. Some people, during a season of life, leap like gazelles. Let’s say you’ve been living in flagrant sexual sins. You turn from sin to Christ, and the open sins disappear. No more fornication: you stop sleeping with your girlfriend or boyfriend. No more exhibitionism: you stop wearing that particularly revealing blouse. No more pornography: you stop surfing the net or reading the latest salacious romances. No more adultery or homosexual encounters: you break it off once and for all. Never again. It sometimes happens like that. Not always, of course, but a gazelle season is a joy to all.
For other people (or the same people at another season of life) sanctification is a steady, measured walk. You learn truth. You face your fears and step out toward God and people. You learn to serve others constructively. You build new disciplines. You learn basic life wisdom. You learn who God is, who you are, how life works. You learn to worship, to pray, to give time, money, and care. And you grow steadily—wonder of wonders!
Other people (or the same people in another season) are trudging. It’s hard going. You limp. You don’t seem to get very far very fast. Old patterns of desire or fear are stubborn. But if you trudge in the right direction—high praises to the Lord of glory! One day, you will see him face-to-face. You will be like him.
Some people crawl on their hands and knees for a long or short season. Progress is painful. You’re barely moving. But praise God for the glory of his grace, you are inching in the right direction.
And there may be times when you’re not even moving—stuck in gridlock, broken down—but you’re still facing in the right direction. That’s Psalm 88, the “basement” of the Psalms. The writer feels dark despair—but it’s despair oriented in the Lord’s direction. In other words, it’s still faith, even when faith feels so discouraged you can only say, “You are my only hope. Help. Where are You?” That kind of prayer counts—it made it into the Bible.
There are times you might fall asleep in the blizzard and lie down, comatose and forgetful—but grace wakes you up, reminds you, and gets you moving again. There are times you slowly wander off in the wrong direction, beguiled by some false promise, or disappointed by a true promise that you falsely understood. But he who began a good work in you awakens you from your sleepwalk, sooner or later, and puts you back on the path. And then there are times you revolt and do a face-plant in the muck, a swan dive into the abyss—but grace picks you up and washes you off again, and turns you back. Slowly you get the point. Perhaps then you leap and bound, or walk steadily, or trudge, or crawl, or face with greater hope in the right direction.
We love gazelles. Graceful leaps make for great stories about God’s wonder-working power. And we like steady and predictable. It seems to vindicate our efforts at making the Christian life work in a businesslike manner. But, in fact, there’s no formula, no secret, no technique, no program, no schedule, and no truth that guarantees the speed, distance, or time frame. On the day you die, you’ll still be somewhere in the middle. But you will be further along.
When we lengthen the battle, we realize that our business is the direction.
1. Martin Luther, “From Depths of Woe” (Psalm 130), 1523; composite translation.
2. John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” 1779.
This article is adapted from Making All Things New by David Powlison.